Rhubarb is a confusing plant. It looks like a vegetable, but is cooked as a fruit. Tasted alone, it is unbearably bitter. So where does rhubarb fall in the botanical spectrum? The origin is traced over 2,000 years ago to Asia where it was initially cultivated for medicinal qualities. In China, the roots were dried and pulverized to treat ailments, while the plant was commonly used as a laxative to treat indigestion. The medicinal use for rhubarb continued in Europe until it was discovered that the petioles (leafstalks) were edible and even tasty when cooked properly.
In the 19th century, the Victoria variety caught the British by storm. It was easy to grow, consistently tender, and reliable. The obsession began. Rhubarb was used for jam, jellies, pies, custards, puddings, and fools (see below for Rhubarb Fool). It wasn’t long until rhubarb made its way across the Atlantic.
Established as a vegetable, from the genus Rheum, rhubarb was reclassified by US custom officials in the 1940s as a fruit, under the auspice that it should be categorized according to consumption. In actuality, the change took advantage of lower tax rates and shipping laws. Interestingly, rhubarb is still classified as a fruit in the United States today.
The classification of rhubarb as fruit or vegetable is less important than taking advantage of its spring flavor. The season is short, and time should not be wasted on debates. Rhubarb is a treat to be savored, and I have been working on a variety of recipes to use it in both respects—as fruit and vegetable.
Pies, tarts, and crisps are rhubarb classics. This year, I’m attempting to be inventive with rhubarb to consume less sugar. One of the most balanced dessert recipes that I have discovered is Rhubarb Fool, a throwback from 1830s Britain.
Rhubarb Fool Recipe
Ingredients• 2-1/4 pounds rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1. Combine rhubarb and sugar in a large saucepot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until mixture has consistency of apple sauce (6-8 minutes) while stirring occasionally. Chill the mixture for about one hour.
2. Fold rhubarb mixture into the yogurt and swirl in the whipping cream. Cover and refrigerate for 1-6 hours.
Finding alternative (non-sweet) uses for rhubarb has proven challenging. I look forward to experimenting in the next few weeks and adding to my repertoire. I love rhubarb pie and sweet treats, but seriously, there must be other ways to consume this vegetable (dare I even say it). In this search, I have discovered an interesting Middle Eastern spinoff recipe for lentils (dal) and rhubarb from Mark Bittman. The rhubarb adds a lemony zest and fleshy texture to the stew.
Dal & Rhubarb
Ingredients• 1 cup dried lentils
1. Combine all ingredients except salt, butter, and cilantro in a saucepan. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Adjust heat so mixture bubbles gently, cover partially and cook while stirring occasionally. Add water as needed and cook until lentils are tender (about 30 minutes). Lentils should be saucy, not soupy.
2. Remove cloves and cardamom pods. Stir in butter if using, adjust seasoning and garnish with cilantro.
Rhubarb can be infused with alcohol or made into simple syrups for mixers. Again, more sugar! The simplest infusion that I enjoy is fresh-diced rhubarb in water. Freeze slices of rhubarb to add to summer lemonades, tea, or water for a refreshing treat.
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